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  • Why Exhibitionists Sell More Products

    During the 2010 Olympics, The Vancouver Art Gallery mounted a special exhibition. On display were Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings and studies of anatomy. The wait in line to buy exhibition tickets was over an hour. To view the pieces in the exhibition, viewers dealt with crowds of people, all trying to see the amazing sketches.

    Art museums are retail
    Museums sell to consumers.
    They sell experiences.
    They sell education.
    And they sell merchandise.

    And museum curators are masters of display.
    Displays that attract customers. And not just any customers.
    These displays attract committed customers.
    Customers who put up with inconveniences for the chance to buy.

    Why would viewers pay money to look at a display?
    Why would they tolerate long lines and crowds?

    And why would they pay even more money after the exhibit? When leaving the Da Vinci exhibition, viewers happily bought exhibition catalogues and merchandise featuring reprints of Da Vinci’s work.

    Why was the exhibition so successful?

    It’s easy to say that viewers flocked to the exhibition because Leonardo Da Vinci is an olympian of art, science and invention. And it’s true that even if the exhibition was poorly presented, the museum would still have sold some tickets.

    But it’s the quality of the exhibit that made it so successful. Because viewers enjoyed the exhibition experience, they wanted to take their experience home with them. So they bought products. And told friends about the fabulous exhibition. The reputation, and ticket sales, of the exhibition grew.

    What made the Da Vinci exhibition and products so desirable?

    The Da Vinci exhibition employed techniques that work in retail displays as well as museum exhibitions. These three techniques create an engaging experience for customers. An experience that customers want to take home with them.

    1) Connect with your customers
    2) Tell a story
    3) Make your product relevant

    1) Connect with your customers

    The first technique is to connect with the customer’s interests or desires. Something they already know about. Something they already desire.

    Most people know at least a little about Leonardo Da Vinci. He’s admired around the world. The chance to see his sketchbooks up close, immediately connects with customer interest. Viewing this exhibition is recognized as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

    “But I’m not selling Da Vinci”

    Yes, it’s easy to create a connection if you’re putting Da Vinci on display. But what if you don’t have such a universally admired product to promote?

    You don’t have to sell Da Vinci.
    You just need to have a product that your customers value.
    Not all customers.
    Your customers.
    Just the customers who like what you do.
    And how you do it.

    The Da Vinci exhibition opened during the Olympics.
    But the gallery curators didn’t try to attract all the Olympic visitors.
    They didn’t have an exhibition about sports.
    They set out to attract Olympic visitors who appreciated art.
    They created an exhibition featuring an artist who had the qualities of an olympian.

    To connect with your customers, you just need to know what interests them. After hooking the customer with an interest or desire they already have, a great display maintains that interest with a story.

    2) Tell a story

    A great display tells a story. It doesn’t just show the customer what they already know. It adds to the customers’ experience by telling them something new.

    In the Da Vinci exhibition, each drawing had an interpretation. Just seeing the anatomical drawings in Da Vinci’s sketchbooks would have been interesting. At first. But viewers would soon get bored. Each sketchbook page was crammed with detailed sketches and notes. Notes that were written backwards, in mirror writing. In Latin. The average viewer wouldn’t have a clue what they were looking at.

    The interpretive panels told the viewers the story of the sketchbooks. They described when the books were found, and they translated the notes. Viewers could understand the sketchbooks better because of the story.

    In retail, story interprets merchandise for consumers. Without a story, a display is just a jumble of unrelated merchandise. When you tell a story, you can create themes for displays. Themes help you group relevant merchandise together. You can tell stories with merchandise and lighting alone, or you can use signs to help interpret the product for the customer.

    Restoration Hardware is an excellent example of a company that recently reworked their business strategy to tell a new story. Their store displays and catalogue tell a strong story of re-interpreted antiques and old world Europe. It’s not a story that appeals to everyone. But their new story certainly sets them apart from competitors. And enthralls the customers they want to attract.

    Not only do you need a story, but you need to make it relevant to your customers.

    3) Make your product relevant

    A great exhibition describes why the artwork or artifact is important. If viewers don’t know why it is important, they won’t be impressed by it. They may even be bored by what you have on display.

    When viewers see the anatomy drawings by Da Vinci, they can appreciate the great technical drawing skill. But it is easy to take the drawings for granted at first. In the 21st century, we are familiar with drawings of anatomy. We have similar information available at our fingertips. At first glance, we may not realize how remarkable Da Vinci’s drawings were in the 16th century.

    The exhibition described how incredible it was that Leonardo sketched from cadavers, without electric light, without refrigeration. No one had done this type of anatomical exploration before him. And no one else would discover that much about anatomy for another 300 years!

    When viewers understand the relevance of Da Vinci’s work in his own time, they can appreciate just how incredible his work was.

    When you describe why your product is relevant to your customers, that’s when they’ll understand it’s value. Let them know why the product is important.


    Museum exhibitions attract customers that pay to see displays, and then buy museum products. They buy so that they can go home with a piece of the show. They want to take their experience with them when they leave. You don’t need to be an olympian, or sell Da Vinci to create great displays that sell. All you need to do is to use the techniques that exhibitionists use.

    1) Connect with your customers

    Connect with the customer’s interests or desires. Get their attention with something they already know and desire.

    2) Tell a story

    Maintain customer interest with a story. Use the story to engage and enthrall the customer.

    3) Make your product relevant

    Describe why your product is relevant to your customers. Let them know why the product is important. Relevance will demonstrate the product value to customers.

    Museum exhibitions attract customers that pay to see displays, and then buy museum products. They buy so that they can go home with a piece of the show. They want to take their experience with them when they leave.

    Create a museum experience with your displays. Give your customers a reason to take the experience home with them. A reason to buy your products.

    Isn’t it time you created museum displays for your products?


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